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Potatoes don’t grow on trees

Volume 6 Number 2 - October 2009

Annastella Gambini

French: Les pommes de terre ne poussent pas dans les arbres

Spanish: Las papas no crecen en árboles


In this article we present a short scientific discussion based on some aspects of the biology of the potato: an active study of the plant that leads kindergarten children to make real discoveries. A group aged three to five years old were shown a large number of potatoes and were encouraged to observe and handle them. Aspects of biodiversity were included in the discussions led by the teacher. Having planted potatoes in the vegetable garden, the children also used potatoes in indoor activities. And once the vegetative life-cycle had reached its natural end, with lots of new potatoes, the children made gnocchi – a return to the daily experience of potatoes as food.


If children become interested in an animal or plant they ask endless questions: ‘How does it grow? How does it move? How does it live? What happens if…’ These are what one might call ‘life questions’, centring on the principal aspects of biology and with their roots in an approach based on experience and personal involvement (Chalufour & Worth, 2003). In this paper we present such an approach towards potato biology carried out at a kindergarten. The transformation of everyday items into study objects can take many forms: if we look at the potato from the point of view of the person who cooks or eats them, we learn about nutritional aspects; looking at it from the point of view of a farmer we focus on growth and spread; from the point of view of the ‘artist’ we consider its physical peculiarities, and so on. In this project we made room for many of these aspects, always with the intent of presenting a short scientific exploration of some of the biology of this plant.

The educational project

The project was designed for children aged three, four and five years. Potatoes were chosen for our study for the following reasons:

  • every child is familiar with potatoes as food. This shows that any element of the everyday world can be a subject for study. It is more stimulating and involving to link our studies to daily life and also something  everyone can relate to
  • children like potatoes, and generally have a positive attitude towards them
  • potato plants have some peculiarities which are not obvious at first. An active study of the plant, consequently, allows real discoveries – for example, not everyone knows that potato flowers are rather beautiful.

The project was led by a small group acting through collective discussion. Group decisions had to reflect the opinions of all and were based on observation, exploration, questions, expectations and hypotheses, gathered and compared (Guichard, 1995). All the children participated in the research, each age group being assigned activities – the elder ones hoed, all ages made the dumpling dough and drew pictures, and so on. We made personal experience the basis of the entire project (Worth & Grollmann, 2003).

What the children knew at the beginning

Potatoes volcano (Luca)
 I enjoy eating them (Elena)
 Fried potatoes (Michela)
 Roast potatoes (Lara)
 Sausage potatoes (Francesca)
 Potatoes ‘digimon’ (Valentino)
 Eat them (Irene)
 French fries with ketchup (Lara)
 Potatoes to peel (Elena)
 Yellow (Norman)
 Cooked potatoes (Beatrice)
 Potatoes cooked in the oven (Nicolas)
 To eat (Federico)
 French fries (Mirco)
 Figure 1: The responses of children
when asked ‘what comes to your mind
when you think of a potato?

We began when the children were served boiled potatoes at lunch and asked them: ‘What comes to your mind when you think of a potato?’  Thus we heard the children’s initial ideas, and also got them used to dealing with discussions, a valuable learning experience. Their answers (Fig. 1) made a clear link between the potato and food.

An introduction to potatoes

The first time the children ‘encountered’ potatoes was very significant. It was centred on exploration and free play. Maria Arcà wrote, ‘we must build a setting (a sort of stage) where facts can demonstrate how they take place to whoever is looking and listening to them’ (Arca 2005).

 bad potato
 potato with worms
 little ball-potato
 snow man-potato
 Figure 2:  Nicknames
the children gave
their potatoes

Inside the school gymnasium the children were presented with  a large number of potatoes (more than 300), several different varieties and all different shapes and sizes – white, yellow, red, new, Egyptian, those grown by a local farmer and so on. The objective was to allow the children to observe the many differences that result from genetic variance in this one species (Gaston & Spicer, 2004). When we asked them to name their chosen potatoes they came up with an interesting list (see Fig. 2.).  In the discussions that followed, aspects of biodiversity were highlighted.

Work in the vegetable garden: growing the potatoes

From the beginning the children knew they could sow the potatoes and watch them grow, so we took them into the garden to choose a suitable spot for planting. The children immediately took responsibility for the potato patch and getting it ready was important to them. The older children used small spades to dig the holes. While they worked, they discussed and compared what they were doing, and helped each other. Each child chose a potato, put it in a hole and covered it with soil.

Each child put a label where they had planted their potato. They were divided into shifts for watering the garden and each anxiously awaited his/her turn, under the guidance of an adult – hypothesis and discussion were suspended, so this became a silent but valuable learning time. Some potatoes were also put aside in a dark damp place and checks made as they developed: one was sprouting later than the others, one had red sprouts, others long or short ones, still others had tiny leaves, and so on.

Working in the garden, the children learned to distinguish between potato plants and weeds, saw worms and insects in the soil, and were able to imagine how all this life interacted. Eventually the plants sprouted: tiny leaves at first, but they grew and the flowers bloomed… yet though the children looked all around the leaves, they saw no potatoes. The teachers suggested they check what had happened to the original potatoes they had planted. Digging under each plant, the children found not one potato but many! That was very exciting and their patience had been well rewarded.

The magic life-cycle of a plant was thus completed (in part, since it was a vegetative reproduction, without pollination and consequent development of fruit and seeds). The integrity of the organism was revealed – potatoes originally seen only as food were shown to be the vital organ of a plant with all its life functions. Furthermore it was clear that in order to obtain a potato plant one always needs to start with a potato.
In class the teacher always pointed out differences between the tubers, underlining their biodiversity. Children enjoyed the indoor activities, making colourful stamps out of the potatoes or characters or animals. Using the same item for scientific study and for play seemed to make the children feel more creative.   And, finally the making of gnocchi signified that the children were ‘back to a daily situation’ after their ‘scientific’ work.

Plants are food for herbivores, which in turn can be food for carnivores that indirectly depend on plants. Energy reserves held by tubers and roots can be eaten by animals, or the plants themselves use them to aid growth in spring. Eating potatoes symbolizes the relationship between organisms and the fundamental interdependence which exists between all living things.


As well as diversity between individuals of the same species, at the heart of this research, the children were exposed to other topics such as the life-cycle of plants and nutritional relationships. Waiting for the potatoes to grow the children recounted their feelings and told stories. They got used to discussion and made predictions and deductions about potential results (Corsaro & Molinari, 1990).

The project allowed every child a place in the group, and the chance to build collective experience and knowledge. They took part enthusiastically and were eager to gain knowledge. The discussions were sometimes slow to get going and had mixed results, but many were productive and rich in ideas. The children learned to wait patiently but attentively for progress. They learned respect for the unknown, for what they do not yet understand, and to be content to leave some questions for the future.


•    Chalufour, I. & Worth, K., 2003. Discovering Nature with Young Children. Redleaf Press, Minnesota.
•    Guichard, J., 1995. Designing Tools to Develop the Conception of Learners, International Journal of Biological Education, 17(2), 243–53.
•    Worth, K. & Grollmann, S., 2003. Worms, Shadows and Whirlpools: science in the early childhood classroom. Heinemann, Portsmouth, N.H.
•    Arcà., M., 2005. Ricerca Didattica e insegnamento, Naturalmente, 1, 3–9.
•    Gaston, K. J. & Spicer, J., 2004. Biodiversity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
•    Corsaro, W. & Molinari, L., 1990. From seggiolini to discussione: the generation and extension of peer culture among Italian preschool children, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 3.


L’état naturel des enfants est d’être curieux… comment ça pousse? Comment ça bouge? Comment ça vit? Que se passe-t-il si… De telles ‘questions de la vie’ sont fondées sur les principaux éléments de biologie.  Le projet présenté ici a été mené par le département des Sciences Humaines de l’Université de Milan-Bicocca en Italie.  Il décrit comment les enfants d’âge préscolaire peuvent découvrir la biologie de la pomme de terre d’une manière créative et significative.  Au début du projet, les enfants ont été encouragés à observer et manipuler des pommes de terre parmi une grande sélection étalée dans le hall de l’école.  Ils ont également appris comment cultiver des pommes de terre dans le jardin potager et, par le biais du jardinage, ont étudié le cycle de vie de la pomme de terre.  Pour conclure, les enfants ont préparé des gnocchis, une façon de faire le lien entre les pommes de terre et leur quotidien. Ils ont participé à ce projet avec grande passion, en découvrant les faits par eux-mêmes et en se rendant compte qu’ils devraient attendre d’être plus âgés pour comprendre les réponses à certaines de leurs questions.


El jardín Botánico Brera de la Universidad de Milán, Italia, invita a los jóvenes y los no tan jóvenes a recorrer un sendero. Cualquiera que sea la estación, el sendero en el jardín antiguo es para descubrir el maravilloso mundo de la corteza. Siendo que la corteza es la piel de los árboles. Esta puede ser lisa, arrugada, en lajas horizontales, estriada, partida, etc. pero tiene su trama, color y diseño particular a manera de placas, lajas, pecas y surcos. Cada árbol tiene su propia piel que lo protege, la cual también lo identifica y distingue entre otros. En la corteza también hay un sinnúmero de organismos vivos como lo son hongos, líquenes. También muchos otros que viven o pasan temporadas en la misma, como son el caso de los caracoles, arañas, insectos y hormigas, esto es todo un microcosmos a descubrir. Cada visitante puede llevar consigo un pequeño estereo microscopio el cual lo habilita a llevar a cavo su propia y meticulosa investigación. También se cuenta con guías que ayudan y orientan al publico a mirar las diferentes cortezas y usar su creatividad para visualizar mundos que se tornan maravillosos a los ojos, imaginándo paisajes lunares o construyendo historias fantásticas. El sendero se puede considerar un viaje entre el arte y las ciencias, todo esto para descubrir lo fascinante de un árbol y su morfología.

Annastella Gambini
Professor of Environmental and Applied Botany
Department of Human Sciences
Building U16    Via Thomas Mann angolo via Giolli
University of Milano-Bicocca (Italy)